Many farmers are willing to sell a side of beef, a few dozen eggs or a bag of potatoes to their acquaintances. Farmers have been direct marketing since agriculture began and it is only in the last 50 years that direct farm to consumer sales have started to be questioned. Up until then, governments encouraged farmers in the art of safe food production and processing. (Some can still remember that 4H lesson on how to properly butcher a chicken.) At one time, many citizens knew their farmer.
Then came the agribusiness revolution and farmers were encouraged to abandon their small enterprises and specialize in the commodity market. Citizens became consumers and within 2 generations the social link between table and farm was broken.
Now, the grocery store rules the food system with a massive, complicated and expensive network of middlemen who ensure a constant supply of every food imaginable. The food is cheap but citizens have gradually noticed that the quality and taste have changed. Occasional food recalls and stories of factory conditions have contributed to a general worry about industrial food quality. Consumers grumble and keep going to the grocery store anyway, but a growing number of citizens have started buying directly from a farm.
Some farmers are answering the demand with direct food sales at the farmgate and farmers markets. It’s easy for governments to jump on the bandwagon and proclaim their support for local foods. Who can deny that local is a good thing? But what policy directions confirm this support? It’s telling that when bottled in Manitoba, Pepsi is defined as a “local” food.
Many farmers have bought into the idea that bigger is better and taken it one step further to believe that smaller is bad. Farm associations can’t speak for their smaller members and the supply managed groups do not allow small scale. The resulting rules which ignore the needs of small scale food producers and discourage farmgate sales and farmers markets.
When challenged, the talk is about food safety, however most rules have nothing to do with food safety. Guidelines for international traceability, export protocols, food sizing, fancy packaging, double signatures and paved parking lots are not necessary when the farm is small and the consumer can question the farmer directly.
Governments have focused on expanding export markets at the expense of small scale food. So, it was quite a surprise when the Manitoba government commissioned a Small Scale Food Report.
Well, maybe it wasn’t a surprise. A popular farm had first been commended, then raided over a regulation technicality. The resulting public furor was loud and long. When faced with public outrage, a government’s strongest defense is to commission a report.
The Report makes many good recommendations to advance small scale food. It calls for information sharing and resources to help producers. The final recommendation suggests that small scale farmers take their regulation concerns to the big commodity groups which created those same regulations. This idea has the small farmers producers asking if the whole consultation process was a sham.
The 18 people selected for the Manitoba Small Scale Food Report working group included 3 small scale direct marketing farmers. Of the rest, 5 were staff from associations which represent multinationals like Maple Leaf Foods and Canada’s biggest egg conglomerate, Burnbrae Farms. The National Farmers Union, which strongly supports both direct marketing and the farm associations was not invited even though a request was made.
Estimates are that about 3% of Manitoba’s food is sold at the farmgate or farmers market. The report suggests that this market share could grow to 10%. That would set direct marketing in direct competition with industrial agriculture. Farmers see 10% as the difference between profit and loss and they are unlikely to willingly give up a share of their market.
The Small Scale Food Report recommends that small scale food producers create an association, use it to negotiate with the big associations and convince them to change the rules so that small farmers can have part of their market. The report recommends that associations “foster a diversity of production methods”, recognize small scale “as legitimate members of the commodity group”, and calls for “a collaborative, inclusive context among the existing boards, small scale specialty producers, government policy analysts and consumers.” That would be a reversal of the long-standing promotion of industrial farming.
Is collaboration possible? Industrial agriculture has a virtual monopoly. Now it is asked to embrace diversity and give up a piece of the market. It is asking a lot but maybe it is possible.
Public support for small farms is strong and getting stronger. As the report points out, the commodity associations “have been granted a social license to provide a predictable supply of food to the public.” However, the growing popularity of small scale food and farmers markets is a sign that the public wants more than what industrial farmers can provide.
It might be time to work together. The public wants cheap food but they want pastured poultry and artisanal cheese too. Small Scale producers want regulations which don’t put them out of business. Big commodity associations need public support and the best way to get that support is to allow small scale farming to thrive. Maybe it’s finally time for big farming and small farming to start sharing the table.
Kate Storey is a Manitoba farmer, direct marketer and NFU member.